Beliefnet
JERUSALEM, Nov. 8 (AP)-- Violence flared in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Wednesday, even as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat headed for Washington to consult with President Clinton. Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli customs worker on her way to work, and four Palestinians were shot dead in clashes.

The Palestinian leader flew to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - the main sponsor, with Clinton, of the peace process - and then headed to London to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Arafat was due in Washington by nightfall, and will meet with Clinton on Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was to meet with Clinton on Sunday.

``I want to hope that the meetings in the coming days between President Clinton and Chairman Arafat and myself will indeed lead to a stop in violence and to a full implementation of the agreements'' on a truce mediated last month by Clinton in Egypt, Barak said.

Although the Palestinians have said they won't declare statehood on Nov. 15 - the 12th anniversary of a symbolic independence declaration Arafat made in exile - they did say they might do so without prior notice.

``The Palestinian people have the right to declare the state whenever they want,'' Nabil Shaath, a top aide to Arafat, said Wednesday.

That came a day after Barak made his clearest ever offer of statehood to the Palestinians, but said it could come only through negotiations - and that talks would resume only once the violence stopped.

``This situation cannot continue and Israel will put an end to it, be it by political or other ways,'' Barak said Wednesday at a memorial to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, slain by a Jewish extremist five years ago.

``Violence will not achieve anything, it will not change our policy and will not weaken our determination to bring peace and security to Israel.''

But the prospect of a peaceful resolution seemed far away Wednesday.

Three Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli customs official traveling to work in Rafah, the Israeli-controlled border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. They killed her and injured her nephew, who was driving.

Barak said he viewed the attack ``with great severity, especially on the eve of...Arafat's trip to Washington. It calls into question the seriousness of Arafat's intentions to implement...understandings and decrease violence in the region.''

A group allied with the militant Islamic Jihad, a small organization opposed to the peace process, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement faxed to The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria.

In retaliation, Israel shut down the crossing and Gaza's airport, which it jointly controls with the Palestinians.

Officials said they believed the gunmen came from the direction of the airfield. Israeli army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz has accused Arafat of smuggling arms on his presidential jet. Hussein a-Sheikh, a senior military aide to Arafat, dismissed that charge as ``nonsense.''

Four Palestinians - including three teen-agers - were killed in clashes with Israelis throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Two more teen-agers died overnight from wounds sustained in earlier clashes, bringing the death total from five weeks of violence to at least 178, 165 of them Palestinians.

The killing of minors has fueled Palestinian fury, and Arafat wants Clinton to press Barak to accept an international monitoring force.

``If (Clinton) thinks Israel would not accept, then he should work to put pressure on Israel to accept it,'' Shaath said.

Israelis say they will reject any attempt to bring in police from the outside, but Barak has said he is ready to accept the scrutiny of a committee convened by Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that will examine the causes of the violence.

The committee will be led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who guided peace talks in Northern Ireland, and will include another American, a Turk, a Norwegian and a Spaniard.

Shaath said Arafat was insisting the committee include an African - preferably Nelson Mandela of South Africa, a friend to the Palestinian cause who nonetheless surprised Israelis last year on his first visit when he emphasized his understanding for Israeli positions.

Shaath said the Palestinians want to broaden international mediation to diminish the U.S. role, which they view as overwhelmingly pro-Israel.

``We want a united European role that supports our demands and our rights,'' he said. ``This is what can bring peace to the area and to Israel.''

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